I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.
Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.
The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.
Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.
As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.
Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.
Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.
A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.
To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”
There’s a reason you haven’t seen me online much this summer. I went underground to avoid the graphic images of children suffering in Israel and Gaza, Iraq and Syria; to escape the vitriolic language of my friends’ Facebook updates; to disconnect from bullying demands that I demonstrate loyalty to my ally and condemn the enemy. Unable to find peace, I chose to disengage from the violence in the world upstairs and embrace the silence in my basement studio.
Here, I breathe normally and work purposefully. I empty my mind of anxiety as I systematically empty bottles of glaze onto ceramic plates and bowls, pieces that feature sunbursts and flames—light to dispel the darkness of this summer. Somehow, my hiding in the basement studio transforms into an act of sympathy with those seeking shelter from missiles.
Thinking only of the micro-motions required to finish this piece, I steady my left hand against the rim of a Yahrzeit candle holder and begin writing the words of the Psalmist: “Teach us to number our days and allow us to acquire a heart of wisdom.” (Psalms 90:12) I patiently apply three coats of glaze, allowing each letter to dry before tracing the next. I cannot possibly number the hours I spend absorbed in this task, seeking solace in this underground sanctuary.
Recently forced to emerge from hiding—to teach Torah and serve as a rabbi—I can barely resist my desire to avoid the news and graphic images of violence and destruction that continue to plague the world above ground. Sitting at my desk, struggling to find some wisdom that I acquired in the studio to share in this space, I realize this is my Torah: how I spent the summer devoted to healing my own broken spirit.
Writing this piece and daydreaming about glazing ceramic pieces, I wonder more than once if sharing my experience of hiding in the basement will be of value to anyone else. Will teaching this Torah help anyone else find peace? Maybe others don’t suffer anxiety about the state of the world or feel the need to hide as strongly as I do. Maybe it’s true that I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe someone will read these words—the description of one person’s experience of trying to mitigate her anxiety—and find them to be helpful. If so, I’ll consider my return to the blogosphere a first step toward pursuing peace.
The experience of channeling nervous energy into the creation of Judaica helps me get through difficult days. I rewrite the words of the Psalmist in glaze and sing them quietly; they awaken my soul from despair. I find the strength of spirit to emerge from hiding, ready to heal our broken world.
After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”
When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”
When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)
If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.
The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.
But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.
On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.
In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.” Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).
Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).
Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.
Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.
What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.
Jon Stewart, in his July 21 episode of The Daily Show, viscerally demonstrated what many of us, I am sure, are experiencing on our Facebook feeds and our email inbox when it comes to postings on Israel and Gaza. Take a look at his attempt to talk about Israel.
At the same time as I support Israel’s right to defend itself in a war with Hamas 100%, I do believe there is room for respectful and thoughtful analysis of the broader context as we try to understand why we have arrived at this moment, and what might lie ahead. There are those who are uncomfortable with that conversation, because they don’t think it’s the right time to raise anything that might be critical of Israel’s choices and policies, but it’s not really possible to have the conversation if we’re not willing to look at those choices. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think we need to silence opinion and conversation, but I also don’t believe that this broader conversation about the peace process can be applied to the specific battle at hand today. Whatever both sides may have done or failed to do in the past, today’s battle, if you identify with the fate of the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, is about Israel defending its citizens from indiscriminate attack, and nothing about the larger context of the peace process will shake my certainty that they must do what must be done to achieve that goal.
Among Jews, there are a wide spectrum of opinions and feelings about what is happening in Israel and Gaza right now. But on certain issues I would hope we would substantially find agreement:
1) Hamas is a terrorist organization. It has stated publicly that it seeks to cause harm to its own people as a way of furthering international condemnation of Israel. To that end, it operates from mosques, schools, and in the midst of heavily populated areas. What it is doing from these locations is firing rockets indiscriminately on the civilian population of Israel.
2) No nation state in the world would tolerate for one moment this kind of bombardment. Israel is completely within its rights to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. When the safety of your citizens and the stability of your country is at stake, you do whatever it takes. Those who speak of a larger context or the suffering of the Gazan people are conflating issues that should not be conflated. We can still talk about the larger question of what is or is not happening with the peace process, and where Israel bears responsibility for poor judgment along the way along with poor choices on the part of the Palestinians. But none of that mitigates Israel’s right to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens when they are being indiscriminately fired upon. That is an act of war, and Hamas has chosen to declare war on Israel. And if you were living in Israel right now, you would not expect anything less of your government.
3) Even while defending Israel’s right and need to take the actions it is taking, as human beings we can still have compassion for all who are suffering through this war. When Gazan civilians die in the midst of the battle, we should cry for the loss of lives. When children in southern Israel have PTSD because they have now lived through years of having seconds to run for cover when the sirens sound, we should have compassion. When Israeli extremists murder a Palestinian teenager we should be disgusted and bring them to justice (as Israel is). And when young Israeli adults are serving their country in the IDF and will be called upon to do difficult things that will lead to the loss of lives, we should think about the impact that war has on all who have to fight it. There are no easy choices.
When it comes to thinking about and talking about Israel, I’m sure that many of you, like me, have been listening to the news and reading many online articles about the situation. Some information is helpful, some inaccurate. Some are naïve, some are antagonistic. Some draw lines of connection that are helpful and some are profoundly misleading.
We all have a tendency to read more from those who already think like us. So how do we navigate our way through the quagmire of information? One might try to distinguish between what is descriptive and what is opinion. But this isn’t always useful. We might hear a news report that begins by telling us how many Gazans died today and how many times Israel fired on Gaza. That is descriptive. But if only as an afterthought is it mentioned, in passing, that Israel did so in response to the several hundred rockets fired by Hamas at their civilian populations, then the information is not being communicated accurately. When Israel is criticized because more Gazans were killed or injured today than Israelis, that is simply a preposterous way to judge and evaluate what is happening and what Israel needs to do to protect its citizens in this war. Approximately 7 million Germans died in WWII and 420,000 Americans died. Was America guilty of a disproportionate response to Hitler? Where opinions clash, it is often not about the facts on the ground per se, but about the framing of these facts, where there are enormous differences in perspective.
And then, when we try to expand the conversation to understand this recent flare up in war with Hamas in the larger context of the long-term lack of a peaceful two-state solution, what we have are many pieces of a puzzle, and they don’t all fit neatly together. So we can talk about the need for a settlement freeze and other choices that Israel could make to better lay the groundwork for a different kind of way of thinking about the Palestinian question. And we can talk about it, as many Israelis already do, independent of an all-inclusive final peace settlement. But if we’re going to talk about those things, we also have to talk about the choices that Hamas has made to take 10 years of potential economic development in Gaza and pour those resources into weapons and tunnels designed to kill Israelis. When we talk about Israel’s policies and choices, we cannot do so in a vacuum that excludes the context of Palestinian policies and choices.
Part of what makes this so complex are the narratives that each side tell about the other; narratives that are often deeply flawed. I’ve often argued for the need to listen carefully to the Palestinian narrative; not because we are required to agree with their framing of their plight, but because we cannot understand what they are doing or why when Israel seems to make a step in the right direction (like withdrawing from Gaza) they are rewarded with terror attacks. It’s not so easy to change someone else’s narrative. So, for example, Hamas will often make reference to the success that the Algerians had in making the French leave. They hold that story up as a model for themselves; make life so intolerable for an invading colonial power that eventually they will leave. But the problem is that, as much as Palestinians define Israel as a Western colonial insertion in their land, that is not what Israel is, and is most certainly not how Israel understands itself. The people of Israel don’t have a “France” to go back to.
And so, when Hamas ramps up the terrorism, Israelis who will not be terrorized out of their homes will fight back with all they’ve got. On the other hand, if we listen to Bibi Netanyahu and observe his policy of continually increasing the breadth of settlement activity, it would appear that he and many others operate with a narrative that thinks that if Israel just continues to establish itself and build itself up, the Palestinians will eventually just give up and move to one of the surrounding Arab countries, or accept a minority status in a Jewish state. Given the Palestinian narrative in which they see the creation of the State of Israel as having denied them their sovereign rights in their own homes and villages, that is a naïve and foolish policy to pursue.
But it gets more complicated. As Jews, we often focus on Israel’s choices and policies. Those on the right support the Netanyahu narrative. Those on the left want to change the narrative to one that could open the pathway to peace. But… that pathway doesn’t exist if only one side changes their narrative. While Hamas continues to operate out of its narrative, then peace simply cannot be—they will not let it be. I’m not sure, but I think Mahmoud Abbas might wish to change the Palestinian narrative, but it is challenging for him to do so without great danger from fundamentalists on his right. Perhaps that is why he is being quiet during this Gaza war. Perhaps he understands that nothing will ultimately change until Hamas is taken out of the equation. Israel understands this too.
In the meantime, let us pray that this war can come to an end soon. Let us pray for the safety of civilians everywhere. Let us pray for Israel’s soldiers, and let us pray for safety of Jews around the world—Jews in Turkey, Jews in France, and elsewhere where anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attacks have already taken place. And let’s talk with one another; reach out to those with family in Israel, respectfully share thoughts and opinions about the larger issues, stand up for human rights when they are violated, and stand up for Israel when she acts to defend herself.
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A version of this article was delivered as my Shabbat sermon on Friday, July 18th. The original sermon can be viewed on the archive of our livestream (sermon begins at approx. the 40 min mark).
Tomorrow, Tuesday, July 15th is a fast day in Jewish tradition. It is called the 17th of Tammuz, named after the date on the Hebrew calendar. It is a minor fast, meaning that the fast lasts only from sun up to sun down. It commemorates, among other things, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls which led to the destruction of the Second Temple.
Coincidently, we are also in the month of Ramadam, when Muslims also fast from sun up to sundown. Given the confluence of the two fasts, and the current fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, several ideas have been floated to bring Jews and Muslims together to celebrate the two fast days.
One group organizing joint gatherings is called “Choose Life Ramadan- 17 Tammuz Fast.” The group can be found on Facebook. Rabbis and Imams from around the world are posting joint events on the page. Scroll through the page to see if there is something in your area. The idea is that if we can celebrate together, we can find a way to peace together.
Another idea is proposed by Rabbi Yehuda Kurtzer in an op ed published in The Times of Israel calling for “the sound of social silence.” He has been appalled at the hate being expressed on social media by people on both sides of this conflict. He is calling for social media silence on this issue beginning on the Fast of Tammuz on Tuesday and extending through the three weeks of mourning some Jews observe for the destruction of the Temples which ends on Tisha B’Av on Tuesday, August 5th.
Both of these ideas are beautiful ways to try to stem the hatred and violence on both sides of this conflict. They also give each of us a way to contribute to building peace. I hope you are able to put one of these ideas in to practice, or to think of another positive thing you can do to help bring about peace.
Israel’s national anthem is called Hatikvah, “The Hope.” Though things may seem very bleak right now, I am holding on to the hope that peace will finally come to the region, and I want to play even a tiny role in making that happen. You can too!
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One of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).
Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.
So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havruta—and Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.
After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”
A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first time—perhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.
Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"—or "rabbi" means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]
So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”
Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.
The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”
Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itself—through censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell you—especially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the tradition—even about political problems.
It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinion—there never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so on—we always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.
But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truth—but silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.
Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, that way lies only death, and madness.
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So the Pope lost his kippah for a moment. I’ve been there. As a fellow bald man and kippah wearer I totally relate. This story just made me like the guy even more (click here is see the Pope’s wardrobe malfunction).
Thanks to my photographer friend, Bill Aron, for sending this my way. [No, Bill didn't take the shot. In this case he just knew a good shot when he saw one.]
On May 25, 2014 Pope Francis will visit Israel. He’ll be in Jordan the day before, and while in Israel, he will also meet with the Palestinian Authority. He’s been fairly deft at walking the gauntlet. His sticking with a populist message of helping the poor and of contrition for Church leaders’ crimes has made me a fan. I also like lines such as, “who am I to judge?”
I have high hopes for this visit. Not for the politics of the moment, between Palestinians and Israelis, but I have hopes for a high profile religious leader modeling that religion does not have to be the central problem. In fact, it isn’t.
Know this, Francis is not the only one. There are many of us out there.
In the history of the world, religion has often been at the heart of wars and bloodshed. People were right to fear and resent religion. But things have changed and continue to progress. Around the world, right now, the hot spots are driven much more by the usual culprits of greed for control, wealth, and power. Yes, religion still plays a corrupting role, there are extremist, but a) their role is weaker, and b) the voices of the peaceful who respect differences and are not threatened by them are growing.
The strength of religion in the 21st century lies in a moral voice that does not compel through dogma, but rather attracts and embraces through humility and modeling a recognition that everyone is created in the image of the divine.
Pope Paul, whom Francis canonized as a saint, declared Jews “our elder brothers and sisters in faith.” Last year, Pope Francis extended a similar sounding olive branch to “… so many Muslim brothers and sisters.”
It will take patience, humility, faith, and peacefulness, as well as a touch of joy, and hope to find a lasting peace—regardless of what politicians contrive—and the record for good politics right now is poor anyway. The Pope’s visit is not overtly political, but do not underestimate it’s potential. Even with stalled peace talks, there is reason to hope.
The wiser voices within the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam still believe in a time when “war and bloodshed will cease.” It seems that the secular voices gave up on that possibility.
Could it be that religion will lead the way to a more peaceful world? I think, “yes.”
How many emails have you gotten recently urging you to “take action” to get new, tougher sanctions imposed on Iran? They sound pretty convincing, right? “Keep the pressure on Iran,” as one email I received urges, resonates with our understanding that Iran, like much of the Middle East, only responds positively to pressure and cannot otherwise be trusted. We in the Jewish community see Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb as the most likely—and therefore most exigent—trigger of this threat. So getting “tougher” on Iran seems like a no-brainer. In fact, several national Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have come out in support of a recently proposed Senate Iran sanctions bill called the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881).
But I am writing this blog today to argue why, from a Jewish perspective, I think this approach is wrong. I want to begin by saying that I care deeply about Israel’s security. I also blame Iran for playing a highly destabilizing role in Middle Eastern geo-politics through its direct (Republican Guard) and indirect (Hezbollah) support for violent pro-Shiite regimes. Nevertheless, I think the current effort to impose new sanctions on Iran is not only strategically flawed but, more importantly, incompatible with a traditional Jewish understanding of war and peace.
First, the strategic case (I’ll keep this brief since it gets technical very quickly; for a far more comprehensive analysis, click here):
Fact 1: the interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany), which began to be implemented on January 12, 2014, is the first positive negotiated agreement with Iran since the Iranian Revolution took place.
Fact 2: the interim agreement explicitly states that the US “will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
Fact 3: the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act (S. 1881) effectively calls for increased sanctions against Iran. Though technically the sanctions called for are conditional, the conditions are both vague enough and broad enough that it is virtually certain they will be triggered.
Fact 4: Iran has made clear that any additional sanctions imposed during the period of the interim agreement will terminate the agreement.
As a result, most analysts see the Senate bill as tantamount to torpedoing a nuclear deal with Iran and setting the groundwork for what will be an ugly, devastating war. In fact, the bill itself explicitly provides that the US will support Israel diplomatically, militarily, and economically, if Israel goes to war against Iran.
As Jon Stewart, my favorite foreign policy expert, points out in this clip, if the purpose of imposing sanctions was to bring Iran to the negotiating table in order to avoid armed conflict, and if Iran has now come to the table and agreed to take some positive steps towards curtailing its nuclear program, why on earth would we think the response should be more sanctions? Even self-proclaimed “Iran hawks” are opposed to the new bill.
Thus, the current Senate bill, from a strategic standpoint, is anathema to the goal of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb without having to resort to war.
But there is a religious undercurrent to this analysis that I have found lacking in Jewish communal discussions about Iran. Judaism is not a religion that propounds warfare. Rabbinic Judaism, in particular, “sought to limit the validity and practicality of violent conflict.” Our daily prayers are filled with messages about seeking peace. Perhaps even more telling,when faced with a conflict between truth and peace, the Talmud routinely opts for peace (such as Ketubot 17a or Yevamot 65b). Why, then, are Jewish organizations and political commentators so eager to embrace a path to war? I can understand AIPAC’s perspective on this issue, since it represents Israel’s view, but why are so many other “centrist” organizations pushing the sanctions bill as well? Why are J-Street and Americans For Peace Now the only national Jewish organizations opposing additional sanctions? Why are we allowing ourselves to be led by the same Jewish neo-cons such as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, and Charles Krauthammer who agitated for our involvement in the disastrous Iraq War?
As a rabbi, I firmly believe that the public policy positions we advocate must be grounded in Jewish values. Advocating affirmative steps towards a preemptive war with Iran, when other options remain on the table, is inconsistent with these Jewish values. In the words of Deuteronomy 20:10, “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, first proclaim peace unto it.” We have drawn near to Iran; it is my hope and prayer that we will have the moral courage and clarity to proclaim peace before rushing off to war.
When news broke last week that Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to a new round of peace talks, how did you feel? Excited that we might finally be on the cusp of a paradigm shift? Dismissive that this will be yet another exercise in unrequited, heightened expectations? Or angry that we still bother to negotiate with, and offer land back to, the Palestinians, seeing them instead as an existential threat to Israel’s well-being?
I suggest that many American Jews, and even more Israelis, sit somewhere between the second and third options. We are burned out by two Intifadas, the failure of negotiations post-Oslo, the constant hate being broadcast by Hamas-controlled Gaza and, to a lesser extent, areas of the West Bank, and the overwhelming chaos surrounding Israel’s borders in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. We have come to accept a defensive posture, preferring security and stability even if it means giving up on the hope of an actual peace agreement that deep down we know is both morally and strategically necessary. I call this the Av mentality. The first nine days of the month of Av in the Jewish calendar is a period punctuated by sadness and despair. As the culmination of the period of “Three Weeks” that begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, the beginning of Av internalizes death and destruction: Jewish mourning rituals are adopted, such as refraining from weddings, parties, and other public gatherings, and some people refrain from shaving or haircutting. The Three Weeks comes to its apex with Tisha b’Av (the 9th of Av), which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples (in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively), and which subsequently came to be associated with myriad Jewish catastrophes, from the razing of Jerusalem to the expulsion of both British and Spanish medieval Jewry. This is a period of time for mourning, fasting, living with regret and despair. We do not so much hope for new beginnings as bemoan what we have lost.
So it is fitting, and more than serendipitous, that the agreement to hold peace talks came after Tisha b’Av, just as the month of Av transitions into Elul. The month of Elul is a time for reflection and contemplation, but also a time for preparation for the upcoming Yamim Nora’im, the High Holidays. It is a time of teshuva, of taking stock of our failures over the past year and to begin the process of forgiving others for their sins against us. It is both a time of assessment of past wrongs and a time of re-commitment to doing more and living better lives in the coming year. We seek out the restoration of relationships with those to whom we have become estranged, striving to replace anger and pain with love and mutual respect.
It is precisely this modality of Elul that we need to embrace when we react to news of the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Remaining in the defensive posture of Av–or worse, a level of hopeless indifference and assumption of perpetual lamentation–does little beyond promoting the status quo. It is neither spiritually nor politically satisfying.
Instead, we should use the occasion of Elul to approach the Israeli-Palestinian relationship as one deserving of forgiveness, self-criticism, and love, rather than blame, defensiveness, and anger. The month of Elul invites us to come together in fellowship and mutual understanding. It is not a time for pollyanish hopes of happiness and kumbaya, of “forgive and forget,” but a time for doing the hard, yet sacred, work of tikkun, of deep, heartfelt, repair and forgiveness. If we have the courage to do so, the audacity to believe in the perpetual potential of transformation and the willingness to do what is necessary to achieve it, then maybe, just maybe, the year 5774 will be the year that peace finally comes to Israel.